By Geri Coleman Tucker
Words have power. They can shape how kids with learning and attention issues feel about themselves. Here are nine things not to say, plus some suggested alternatives.
Avoid comparing your child’s challenges to what’s “normal.” If you use this word, you may imply your child is abnormal—even if you don’t mean to. Talking about what’s usually “expected” could be a more useful approach.
Try to choose words that are more positive than “disabled.” Even if he’s been identified as having a disability, the word “disabled” may send the wrong message. Instead, talk about your child’s abilities and strengths or even how he is differently able.
It is important, however, to talk to your child about what it means to have a disability and to encourage self-advocacy. Remind him that having a disability is nothing to be ashamed of.
Learning and attention issues are not illnesses. Try not to refer to them in this way. Your child isn’t sick. Share how you or someone you know of—maybe even a celebrity the child knows and admires—has worked around a learning or attention issue.
Try to avoid words like “no,” “don’t” or “stop.” They can prompt negative responses. Instead, use a more positive approach, such as: “Can you try this assignment another way?” This kind of redirection could have a positive influence on young and older children alike.
Offer criticism in a way that doesn’t deflate, and not as a standalone critique. Instead, sandwich criticism between two positives to help motivate your child. (“It’s great that you started your math homework right after school today. Tomorrow you need to spend an extra 15 minutes checking your answers. You’ve been working really hard lately, and I’m proud of you.”)
Try not to tell your child to “just try harder” or “this is easy” or “you’ll have to learn it on your own.” These phrases might imply your child is just being lazy—when it’s likely he’s actually working very hard. Help by guiding or reminding about a strategy he’s successfully used in the past.
Avoid describing your child as “suffering” from learning and attention issues. This word may communicate a feeling of weakness or hopelessness. Focus on talking about progress, accomplishments and the individual challenges your child has to work through.
Don’t suggest there’s a cure. Learning and attention issues are lifelong challenges. But do remind your child there are many things he, you, his teachers and doctors can do to work around what’s particularly difficult for him.
Avoid words like “handicapped,” “impaired” and “slow.” Such terms not only can be offensive but may also give the impression that your child’s difficulties are more severe than they really are. Focus plenty of attention on the areas where he shines so he can relish his successes.
Of course you want your child with dysgraphia to do his best. But sometimes even well-meant comments from parents can have a negative effect. Dr. Charles Sophy, medical director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, lists some common remarks that can hurt—and what you might say instead. (You may want to adjust these based on your child’s age.)
Kids with dyspraxia face all kinds of challenges that relate to coordination and movement (among other things). Victoria Biggs wrote Caged in Chaos: A Dyspraxic Guide to Breaking Free when she was a teen. We asked her for tips for what parents should avoid saying—and what they can say to help.
Geri Coleman Tucker is a freelance writer and editor and a former deputy managing editor for USA Today.
Bob Cunningham, Ed.M., serves as advisor-in-residence on learning and attention issues for Understood.
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